- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

Contemporary American political history at the Democratic presidential-primary level is filled with “better-than-expected” performances that have completely changed, and often reversed, the political dynamics of the race. More often than not, the pivotal “better than expected” achievement is accomplished by the second-place (often a distant second-place) finisher.

In the first round of the 2007 “money primary,” freshman Illinois Sen. Barack Obama surprised everyone by raising $25 million during the first quarter. That was $1 million less than the $26 million collected by consensus Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the two-term first lady who raised more than $80 million in her two New York campaigns for the U.S. Senate. Although Mrs. Clinton raised more money, it was Mr. Obama who performed far “better than expected,” giving his campaign a strong dose of momentum. Mr. Obama clearly won the first round of the “money primary,” despite the fact it was Mrs. Clinton who officially broke the pre-election-year first-quarter fund-raising record.

To be sure, the 2007 “money primary” still has three quarters to go. Indeed, the second quarter will be even more important. In 1999, for example, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush overwhelmed his competition by raising $30 million during the second quarter after collecting an impressive $7.6 million in March.

In 2008, the financial needs of the Democratic contenders will grow exponentially much earlier than during previous campaigns. Consequently, momentum will likely play an even more crucial role than before (if that’s possible). Democratic caucuses will be held in Nevada after the Iowa caucuses (Jan. 14) and before the New Hampshire primary (Jan. 22), which will then be quickly followed by the South Carolina primary (Jan. 29). Even more importantly, as many as 20 states, including California, Illinois, New Jersey and Florida, will likely hold primaries on Feb. 5. Given the crucial, perhaps decisive, role that momentum will play next year, it is worth reviewing how momentum (achieved by performing “better than expected”) has affected previous campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Although he finished 13 points behind the winner (36-23), George McGovern’s surprising second-place finish in the 1972 Iowa caucuses marked the beginning of the end of Democratic frontrunner Ed Muskie’s campaign and catapulted Mr. McGovern to the nomination. Even though one-term Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter finished comfortably behind “uncommitted” in the 1976 Iowa caucuses, his surprising finish (28 percent), which put him ahead of the rest of the pack, ignited his primary campaign, which led to the presidency.

By performing much “better than expected” in Iowa in 1984 but still more than 30 points behind frontrunner Walter Mondale (49 percent to 16.5 percent), Gary Hart caught the media’s attention, defeated Mr. Mondale eight days later in New Hampshire by nearly 10 points and came very close to derailing Mr. Mondale’s march to the nomination. Who can forget how Bill Clinton parlayed his “better than expected” second-place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire primary into “the comeback kid,” which culminated in a two-term presidency? And while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was the undisputed winner of the 2003 “money primary” (Dean, $41 million; John Kerry, $25 million; John Edwards, $16 million), it was Messrs. Kerry and Edwards who performed far “better than expected” in Iowa. The Iowa caucuses relegated Mr. Dean to electoral oblivion and propelled Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards to the Democratic presidential and vice-presidential nominations. Now, Mr. Edwards, who raised $14 million during the first quarter, has spent the last 27 months campaigning in Iowa for the 2008 nomination.

Momentum will ebb and flow between now and Iowa and then afterwards as well. Mr. Obama’s fund-raising performance last quarter surely gave him a shot of what former President George H.W. Bush once called “the big mo,” which he claimed to capture after beating Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1980. And we know how that turned out: Mr. Reagan quickly recovered, won the nomination, selected Mr. Bush as his running mate, won the White House in 1980 and re-election in 1984, was succeeded by his vice president, whose son…

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